TGDRT #60: My Games of 2013

TGDRT

Episode #60 is live!

Jon and Dirk hand out awards for the mechanics and games they played in 2013 that stood out – for better and worse.

Now a yearly tradition! I should note that these are indeed our games of 2013. Hell, most weren’t actually even released during 2013. However, Dirk and I tried to pick games and mechanics that stood out to us as having an important role in game design in 2014 and beyond.

This is why both of us chose David Dunham’s venerable King of Dragon Pass as ‘Most Innovative’. The title may now be entering its fifteenth year, but the way it models interesting and realistic characters in a truly living world is incredibly… fresh. The lessons KoDP offers us have long sat dormant, but I’m confident they’ll soon be given due attention and praise. A large chunk of the diplomacy in At the Gates is directly inspired by this little gem.

Anyways, I won’t focus too much on KoDP. We also talk about many other interesting games, so make sure you give ye olde episode a listen!

- Jon

TGDRT #59: Race for the Galaxy

TGDRT

Episode #59 is live!

Board game designer Tom Lehmann joins Jon and Dirk to talk about Race for the Galaxy, co-designing on existing games, and his design methodology.

Race for the Galaxy is one of the most interesting card games I’ve come across. The copious iconography is a major hurdle to those playing for the first time, but it’s well worth the effort as Race for the Galaxy is deep, varied and unique.

Dirk and I actually brought up the game’s tricky symbology and learnability about halfway through the episode, and I enjoyed hearing Tom’s perspective on the issue, if only because it’s clear that this is a topic he’s given real thought to – and that’s certainly not something you can say about most games.

One of my favorite gameplay elements in Race for the Galaxy is how it asks you to choose between a few big, meaty strategies and forces you to make extreme trade-offs to pursue them. This certainly isn’t Agricola, where your goal is to be the most average and dabble in everything. In Race for the Galaxy the cards in your hand aren’t just the planets you can colonize and developments you can build – they’re also the resources you spend to do so. Translating one opportunity into reality requires you to literally trade away several others.

I know this pains some people, but as both a designer and a player I personally love it. Games rarely put the screws to players, instead telling them (true or not) anything is possible, and that every last one of us is a perfect, beautiful snowflake. Tough decisions are the core of the strategy genre, and I honestly can’t think of many games that require me to make tougher decisions (particularly ones where you can pound out a playthrough in under a half hour!).

Now then, if you’ll excuse me. I just finished unwrapping presents and have a couple of new Race for the Galaxy expansions to give a ride, and I can’t wait to see what new goodies Tom has added!

- Jon

TGDRT #58: Death in Games

TGDRT

Episode #58 is live!

Jon, Dirk and David discuss the role of death in games. What is it for? How does it interact with narrative? What games has it been represented well and poorly in? And how can it be improved?

Okay, okay, #58 has actually been up for a while now – apologies for the delay in putting up this post. I’ve added a bit more meat compared to this podcast announcement, so hopefully all is forgiven. Christmas day is perfect for catching up on things!

This has been a topic rattling around inside my head for quite a while, but it came back with a vengeance while playing Chucklefish’s Starbound. There are several elements of the game that I really like (and even more in Re-Logic’s spiritual prequel Terraria - which I’ll be talking about at length soon), but what stood out to me the most was how unhappy I was with their representation of death.

When you die in Starbound you get zapped back up to your spaceship, and in many cases this is actually helpful. You don’t lose any equipment, and if there’s a monetary cost I certainly didn’t notice it. By contrast, Terraria offers three interesting options for the player to choose from. Upon death you either:

  1. Drop (but not lose) half your money and respawn at home (“Softcore”)
  2. Drop all of your equipment and items (“Mediumcore”)
  3. Permadeath

In Terraria money is useful but not the end-all be-all so losing just about any amount isn’t a big deal. Additionally, you can (and probably will) return to the location of your death and recollect your cash, which remains sitting there politely waiting for you until the end of time. (Edit: Just FYI, @Tegiminis on Twitter pointed out to me that items actually do disappear eventually.) And of course, if you stuff your loot under your mattress at home before venturing off there’s no chance of losing it, so the penalty for dying in Softcore is basically just a slap on the wrist.

Mediumcore raises the stakes quite a bit, as losing not just your items but also the equipment you wear all the time in a particularly hazardous or far-from-home place is a really big deal. Not only do you always want to head back to reclaim your stuff, but it’ll also be a much weaker version of you making the journey. And if a particular item was required to even get there? Well, death basically means losing all of your items for good. Needless to say, this is something you’ll work very hard to avoid.

I really like this three-pronged approach, and in doing some research about Terraria I discovered that it only came about through iteration – originally there was no Softcore mode, then the penalty was removed completely before the developers settled on the current setup. I love permadeath but it’s obviously not for everyone. The other two options are particularly brilliant from a game design perspective as they not only dangle the omnipresent sword of Damocles over players, but dying actually provides new goals.

Oh, you died? Well, you don’t just appear back at the starting line, but you’re going to be racing along a slightly different track now.

This approach isn’t ‘perfect’ in my book as it still doesn’t feel like death, but even so, it’s far more interesting than 99.9% of what’s out there, and is exactly the kind of creative design I hope to see more of in the future.

Allowing players to die, respawn and try again a hundred times with no penalty, disincentive or new gameplay attached is not just a missed opportunity but a ‘feature’ that cheapens the rest of your game. Player actions are only meaningful when they have consequences – both good and bad. I understand why many developers feel the need to take a light-handed approach, but as both a designer and a player I relish seeing all of the new ideas popping up in the smaller and/or indie games that don’t need five million sales to break even.

- Jon

TGDRT #57: Stepping Back, Goals & Pacing

TGDRT

Episode #57 is live!

Jon and Dirk discuss general design topics relating to their recent work, including playtesting, extending the development of projects, providing players with goals, instilling a game with good pacing and ensuring there are always interesting strategic options to choose from.

Dirk and I decided tweak our ‘update’ episodes a bit and focus more on topics, rather than details. This is the first show in that format, and I really like the results. Our two main discussion points were pacing and strategic variance.

Pacing is interesting because it’s even less defined than most game design. Training a Unit requiring 10 turns VS 5 turns is more about ‘feel’ than it is ‘correctness’. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if your mechanics even match up with the vision inside your head.

Strategic variance is a bit easier – having it is good, not having it is bad! The challenge here is finding a happy medium.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of having only one good choice – meaning there’s really no choice at all. But players become overwhelmed when you load them up with too many choices, resulting in them becoming equally meaningless. What you want is a handful of digestible, always-viable options. Which is, of course, easier said than done!

This is particularly tough for designers crafting the opening of complex procedural games (like AtG or Civ), as the core experience  is based on a tapestry of overlapping systems, and meddling too directly can ruin what made it fun in the first place!

This is why I’m convinced that there’s no substitute for playtesting, iteration and spending the time to do it right. There’s no secret game design formula that always works. The only recipe you can rely on is experience coupled with trial and error.

- Jon

December 2013 AtG Update: Economics

Hey all, it’s been a couple months so I figured it was time again to let you know where we’re at with AtG.

Alpha testing started up in October and has already paid huge dividends. We have of course found many bugs and made innumerable small improvements, but the biggest benefit has been highlighting the important, high-level questions marks we still need to address.

The biggest hole we’ve identified relates to structure and goals. Most of the planned big gameplay features are in, but what does it all add up to while you’re playing? Sure, you can explore the map, survey and harvest resources, migrate from one place to another – but why? What the heck are we trying to do here anyways?

Read the full post »

TGDRT #56: SeaFall, with Rob Daviau

TGDRT

Episode #56 is live!

Jon and Dirk are paid a return visit by first-ever TGDRT guest Rob Daviau to talk about ‘SeaFall’, his new exploration legacy tabletop game, Rob’s company ‘IronWall Games’, and his hopes for further innovation in the genre he helped create.

Whether the red light is blinking or offline, conversations with Rob are always highly entertaining and this was no exception. This was the first time Rob really talked about SeaFall, and I have no doubt it’ll be just as unique and groundbreaking as Risk: Legacy. Hopefully Dirk and I can get him to sneak us one of those test kits in the mail…

The only discussion point that made me raise my eyebrows is that Rob seems to be specifically targeting consistent, long-term playgroups. It’s great when you have a few friends who can meet up regularly, but most of my tabletop gaming is characterized by people coming and going, around some weeks and gone others (a sin I’m guilty of as well!). The legacy elements in Rob’s Risk adaptation are important without being dominating, but it seems SeaFall taking this road quite a bit further.

Rob noted he isn’t leaving these folks completely out in the cold, but at the end of the day you have to decide what your focus is and lean one way or the other. Perhaps that’s the luxury of being in the ‘hobby’ space rather than mainstream. Don’t get me wrong, I have no qualms at all with the direction – hell, the more unique the game the better! It’s just an interesting decision that caught my attention and thought was worth commenting on further.

So how about you? What do your tabletop groups usually look like? Does Rob’s approach offer exactly what you’re looking for, or have your experiences been more like my own?

- Jon

TGDRT #55: Sharing Design Ideas

TGDRT

Episode #55 is live!

Jon, Dirk and David share design concepts they find interesting and hope to incorporate into future (or simply hypothetical) projects. The group also digs into why developers are sometimes reluctant to share and discuss design ideas.

We covered a lot of different topics in this episode, but my favorite was probably the discussion we had near the end about secrecy. I’m (obviously) a big fan of sharing ideas and talking about what you’re working on, but even I have to admit there are some boundaries necessary to maintain in order to protect oneself. Any time there’s money to be made you’ll find some shady people along for the ride – just the way of the world.

- Jon

TGDRT #54: Playtest Report

TGDRT

Episode #54 is live!

Jon and Dirk meet up to play several tabletop games and discuss what works and what doesn’t. Included in the discussion are Ploy, Race for the Galaxy, and Hansa Teutonica.

Dirk and I decided to mix things up a bit this week and do a ‘livecast’ of some of the games we played over the weekend. We dissect the design of the games pretty extensively, so it’s more than just an after action report!

- Jon

TGDRT #53: Soren’s New Studio

TGDRT

Episode #53 is live!

Jon and Dirk are paid a visit by regular guest Soren Johnson, who stops by to talk about his brand-new studio ‘Mohawk Games’ and their first project, ‘Mars’, an economic RTS built out of the legacy of Dani Bunten’s venerable M.U.L.E. They discuss the challenges of and goals behind Soren setting up his own shop, and what he hopes the unique game will achieve. Soren also reveals the first game to ever make him cry. And trust us, it’s fitting.

It’s a good time whenever we have Soren on, but it was especially great having him on to celebrate and discuss his leap into indie development.

Soren and I have quite a bit in common, and it should come as no surprise that our plans and goals are fairly similar. Still, we don’t see eye-to-eye on everything and spent part of this episode having a lively debate about the merits of Kickstarter VS Steam Early Access. Give it a listen!

- Jon

TGDRT #52: Anniversary Special

Episode #52 is live!

Jon and Dirk are joined by David for the special 1-year anniversary show. They point the magnifying glass back at themselves in this episode and share their design processes, challenges they’ve overcome, the tools they use and how to build a good team. They wrap things up by talking about ways the show has given back and made them better game designers and developers.

Happy first birthday to The Game Design Round Table!

We decided to mix things up a little bit in this episode, and it was a great discussion. We didn’t discuss any specific games this time, and instead focused just on what it’s like to be a designer, at least from our perspective.

- Jon

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